I hesitate to even write this article, because by the time I post it the election results from the sixth congressional district in Georgia might already be in. Which would make all my musings moot, if you'll forgive my alliteration. But I got my taxes in a day early, so I've got nothing better to do than cheerfully speculate about politics this fine afternoon, so I'm hoping people will read this in the same lighthearted way in which it was written.
We begin with an overview. There are five special elections for House seats so far this year. One has already been decided, as a district in Kansas voted a Republican in, albeit by a much smaller margin than normal in a very red district (the Democrat only lost by 7 points, whereas they usually lose by 25-30 points here). One election is taking place in California, and will stay in Democratic hands. So far, nothing has changed in the House of Representatives makeup, in other words. Additionally, one of the remaining races is expected to stay Republican as well. This leaves two races, in Montana and Georgia, where Democrats could actually pick up seats in an upset. Today is the day Georgia is voting.
Georgia has a so-called "jungle primary," where all candidates from all parties share the same primary ballot. Only the top two in the voting will move on to a runoff election, no matter their party. But the runoff election could be avoided altogether if any candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote.
Democrat Jon Ossoff is currently leading -- by a big margin -- in the polls. However, he hasn't cracked the magic 50 percent barrier in any poll (that I've seen, at least). He regularly polls in the low-to-middle 40s. One reason why he's doing so well in a red district is that his opposition is seriously fractured. There are 11 Republicans in the race, and four or five of these seem viable enough to possibly survive to the runoff. If a runoff is necessary, Republicans will likely unite behind their candidate, meaning Ossoff's chances of winning a runoff are a lot less than him winning outright tonight.
A massive amount of money has been spent on this House district. Ossoff has raised over $8 million on his own -- which is multiple times what normal House races regularly spend. Republicans have also poured money into the race, although with the split loyalties they're mostly fighting each other. Outsiders are heavily invested in this race, from liberal precinct-walkers to President Trump's Twitter feed. But at some point voters tend to tune all this noise out, and occasionally even react in a backlash to all the outsider interest.
Much ink will be spilled (and many photons excited) by the media afterwards, explaining "what it all means" to everyone. Much of this will wind up drawing sweeping conclusions that will turn out not to be fully justified.
If Ossoff wins outright, that's going to be a big win for Democrats, no matter how meaningful it turns out to be in the grand scheme of things (in other words, in the 2018 midterms). This, after all, is Newt Gingrich's old seat -- right there, that's a powerful bit of sloganeering Democrats will be sure to use. If Ossoff is forced into a runoff with a single Republican candidate but wins anyway, that will also be of immense psychological benefit to the Democratic Party. Either of these outcomes would represent a gigantic political upset, and perhaps part of a trend of Georgia turning slowly purple.
If Ossoff wins tonight but loses the runoff to a Republican, it's going to disappoint Democrats, who will (as they did with Kansas) have to console themselves with: "It was closer than it should have been!" It won't be seen as any kind of fundamental shift in anything, though, since this district really has been reliably Republican for decades.
The only other options are so farfetched they're not even worth considering, really. Ossoff is almost guaranteed to get the most votes tonight, as his closest Republican opponent struggles to get above 20 percent in the polls -- less than half of where Ossoff is polling. So Ossoff coming in third, which would knock him out of the runoff, isn't very likely to happen.
The most likely outcome is probably Ossoff winning tonight with a vote share between 40 and 50 percent, but then eventually losing in the runoff election. But special elections can have surprises, because who knows if the polling can accurately predict turnout? The energy certainly seems to be on the Democrats' side, but that's really just anecdotal evidence until the votes are actually counted. Even if Democrats do pick up an upset win in Georgia, though, it may not be an accurate harbinger for the entire country (or even any other House district). These special House elections are notoriously bad predictors of nationwide behavior.
Only one thing seems certain at this point, and that is the voters in Georgia are going to continue to get inundated with election ads and phone calls if a runoff election is necessary. Both political parties will continue to pour tons of money into the district until the runoff happens in June. And from what I'm hearing, the voters are pretty sick of the onslaught already, so there's also a real chance of voter exhaustion setting in over the next couple of months.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant